Prince, Beyoncé, Trump – What a Week!

I’m overwhelmed by what to write about today. In the last week Prince died, Beyoncé released an album, Pennsylvania and other states held primaries that seemed to lock in place our Republican and Democratic Presidential nominees. I attended two anti-Trump rallies. Add all the other things in our world, and so many things happening in the life of our church–it’s overwhelming!

Well, let’s start with Trump, and follow that thread into talking about protests and black musical excellence. This is gonna take a few blog posts.

Just over a week ago, I and others involved with Showing Up for Racial Justice (or SURJ) in Philadelphia found out that Donald Trump would be speaking in Harrisburg. SURJ organizes white people to take action against racism, and we had been strategizing and training for several weeks in case Trump came to Philly. On 24 hours notice, we mobilized twelve of our members to join the Central PA chapter of SURJ and other demonstrators outside the Trump rally.

Around thirty protesters stood across the street from tens of thousands of Trump supporters as they waited in line to enter the venue. Holding signs with mostly positive messaging (“Love Trumps Hate,” “Muslims are Americans Too,” etc.) we stood firm as the Trump supporters chanted “Build the Wall!” and “Go back to Mexico!” The white people who had invited us wanted to stay silent, but the growing crowd of young people of color from Harrisburg had their own ethic – they were there to express themselves, sometimes taunting Trump supporters or just laughing and dancing in the face of thousands yelling “Police Lives Matter!” Our group decided to take the lead from these young people.

This past Monday, Trump showed up again at West Chester University. Once again, we were invited to support others organizing their own protest. For five hours in the blazing sun, hundreds of students and professors stood opposite the entrance to the Trump event. A group of black students blasted Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” some students sang the national anthem, others chanted “Daddy’s Money” at well-dressed Trump supporters. We talked with students about safety in case of violence, explained why it’s not helpful to call Trump supporters “pussies,” connected media people with students of color, and basked in the energy that comes from people taking action together from the first time. It was chaotic, it was disorganized, the messages sometimes contradicted one another, but as one philosophy professor told me, “In my fifteen years, I have never seen a protest this big for anything!”

If our goal this past week was to convince people not to support Trump, these were not “effective” actions. If our goal was to spread our message to people who might be supportive (our passive allies), or to build community among people who had never taken action together, then we were successful.

We were successful because we stepped outside of the “norms” of white, middle-class protest – serious people holding serious signs, dedicated “activists” who carefully watch out language and our image to be “palatable.” Not everyone has the opportunity to be “palatable” – the young people of color we stood beside outside those rallies will never be seen as “good people,” to many people in our country their lives do not matter.

This respectability politics gives power to our opponents–we change how we act and talk in the hopes of swaying others, instead of embracing our own selves and our own power. Often, those of us with power and privilege read the Gospels as a call to give up power. This is a good message for us to hear. At the same time, Jesus spends quite a lot of his time encouraging people to step into their power (see the woman with the hemorrhage who touched Jesus in the crowd, the woman who anointed Jesus, the crowds marching on Jerusalem).

This is where we get to Beyoncé and Prince. Both these artists, musical geniuses of their generations, built their reputations on expressing themselves, their own sexualities and gender identities, their own strengths and vulnerabilities. Many of the best eulogies of Prince in the past week have emphasized that he was unapologetically black, queer, and Christian, that he stepped into his both his sexuality and his spirituality.

Beyoncé’s Lemonade tells a powerful story of family, trauma, unfaithfulness, healing, and black women’s strength. On “Freedom,” Beyoncé states her power very simply: “I break chains all by myself/Won’t let my freedom rot in hell.”

As a church dedicated to following Jesus, dedicated to proclaiming the message of freedom and justice, we can’t be afraid to step into our spiritual power. At the same time, we must be aware of how our own norms and expectations cause us to deny or diminish the power of others who express themselves differently. This is a slow and complicated unpacking, it does not end easily. I’ll continue my personal unpacking next week with a deeper dive into Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, and other black musical geniuses transforming how we talk about faith and justice today.

John Bergen

Though Germantown considers itself a single community, we are all individuals with our own backgrounds, and therefore any opinions expressed in this blog should be read as the opinions of the author, and not the official position of GMC. We encourage positive discourse, so all comments will be moderated before posting.